Put the Plug Back in The St. Clair River


CTV and CBC national news on Wednesday night, February 6th, cited a report by the US Army Corps of Engineers  (USACE) showing water levels for Lake Huron and Michigan as well as Georgian Bay are the lowest in recorded history.  CTV cited USACE attributing the low levels to a hot dry summer in 2012; warmer winters with little ice cover resulting in higher evaporation; and, dredging of the St. Clair River resulting in increased river depths of up to 70 feet from bottom scouring.   Essentially someone pulled the plug out of the St. Clair River.

Indeed these water levels meet the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) definition of Crisis Conditions.  Midland’s Mayor McKay has called this situation “a slow movingdisaster”.  Penetanguishene’s Mayor Marshall convened a public meeting on January 31st to receive input on the issue prior to a series of meetings involving Mayors and Band Leaders from around the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.   Mayor Marshall in a quote in a Midland Free Press article said it is expected that 40% of the area’s 21,000 boat slips will be unusable this spring due to lack of shoreline water.

The IJC’s study board has recommended a do nothing approach.  Mayor Marshall is quoted in the Mirror saying, “ Doing nothing is absolutely the wrong thing to do” adding that the potential economic impacts of falling Great Lakes water levels demands action from both the federal and provincial levels of government.  Mary Muter of the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes section echoed these sentiments and said in the absence of a viable plan of action from IJC, nothing will lead to a solution short of an immediate public uprising and full pressure on all levels of government by the public.

Muter said a cost effective, well- engineered, viable solution is available, called sills or speed bumps.  The proposal is for 50 Sills to be installed along the bottom of the St. Clair River to reduce the water flow, without impairing shipping or fish habitat.  The cost: $100 – $200M Shared by the US & Canada and spread out over five years.  USACE have authorization to place submerged sills in the St Clair River under an existing 1956 US-Canada agreement: the USACE Detroit offices could begin the necessary work with an initial injection of funds, so there is no need to wait while all the money is committed.

There is a consensus building that immediate action is needed to address the untenable situation of sustained, and now record low water levels on Lakes Michigan & Huron/Georgian Bay.  Make your voice heard by signing the petition at www.restoreourwater.com .    Engage your friends and neighbours’ support as well.

Further information can be found at this site and may also be found in the Thursday February 7th issues of the Midland Free Press and Midland Mirror.

Midlandcommunity.ca / Economic Development

An information summary from the Sierra Club Great Lakes region is provided below:


  • Reduced water levels have dried up 20% of the highest quality wetlands found anywhere in the Great Lakes; there are now 5-6 foot tall pine trees growing where once there was important fish spawning and nursery habitat .
  • Since last summer the water levels have dropped another 20 inches making this situation even more dire.
  • The problem stems from erosion and semi-annual dredging of the St. Clair River bed, causing excess outflow from the Upper Great Lakes through the lower lakes and out to the Atlantic.
  • The consequence is a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem, with fish and waterfowl dying, massive algal blooms, as well as stranded cottages, boathouses, docks, and dry marinas.
  • Since 2001 water levels in the middle Great Lakes have met the International Joint Commission (IJC) definition of Crisis Conditions and are now setting new record lows. Previously, the IJC’s Study Board tried to minimize the problem.
  • The problem is human -made and solvable              


Negative Economic and Other Impacts in the Region 

  • Marinas are now needing to dredge and blast to maintain their docks because of exposed shorelines all around Lakes Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay.  Banks are however reluctant to hand out loans with no end in sight of declining water levels.
  • Shipping companies reduced load size last summer by 25%. Levels are now down another 20 inches which means they may have to reduce loads by 45% – is this really viable?
  • Ships may not be able to transit through St Mary’s River through 3-4 mile rock cut i.e. no navigation into or out of Lake Superior
  • Loss of access to hundreds of properties on the east and north coasts of Georgian Bay
  • If people cannot get to their cottages, the local economy will suffer
  • If people cannot get through main navigation channels, recreational boating will end and local economies will suffer .
  • With so many sections of the main channel not navigable, it places into question the coast guard’s ability to relocate channels. Will boats be able to navigate in heavy seas on the west side of Beausoleil  Island – most likely not.
  • Access in and out of Trent Severn Canal system was very difficult last summer especially under bridges at Port Severn with very significant hull and engine damages occurring.  With levels now 20 inches lower than last summer, the entrance may have to be closed. Who will travel through all those locks just to have to turn around and go back?
  • Water quality problems will increase with shallower bays.
  • USGS research links fish and birds these deaths to low water levels, as experienced in the early 1960’s when levels were close to this level but invasive mussels and round gobies had not yet arrived in the great lakes.  However botulism was present
  • Solution
  • The problem is human -made and solvable.
  • It is possible to restore Michigan/Huron/Georgian Bay water levels responsibly with minimal or no temporary downstream impacts.
  • Prime Minister Harper and President Obama must re-affirm the 1956 Agreement between our countries and obtain a commitment of funding from the US so that USACE can proceed with this already authorized project. As a condition of the 1962 navigation St Clair River dredging, it was agreed that compensation measures be placed in the St Clair River.  The US Congress allocated funding.  Inaction was the result.
  • We ask that the Prime Minister confirm the Canadian funding commitment and allow partial Canadian funding to flow to the USACE as soon as possible so they can review and update compensation sills designs and then begin work on implementation.
  • The cost of this outstanding solution pales in comparison to the economic costs of doing nothing.


6 Comments on "Put the Plug Back in The St. Clair River"

  1. Plugging St. Clair is only one small piece. This is bigger then a man made problem.

    If the the problem is man made then who generated the conditions to cause the lake levels to be this low in 1960’s. It was these historic lows that generated the desire to dredge the St. Clair river in the first place. Stop shipping bottled water out of the Great lake water-shead, stop Chicago from dumping water down the mississauga river, the rest is caused by Mother Nature and we can not control her. The same people that are whining about the low water levels are probably the same that complained when the water reached record highs in 1997. The sky is really falling….right.

    • Do you happen to live near or on the water? It is sad to think that there are still people out there blaming our lake’s water decline due to climate changes or “mother nature”. I am fortunate to live in the Les Cheneaux islands area in the eastern UP and when I can almost watch at least a foot of water pull out of our area from September to Ice.. You know it’s a bigger problem than just lack of precipitation. I do agree with some of your points but the fact is… They have been dredging in the St. Clair, and it has been simply over dredged. Putting a lock system may not be the answer, but at least there are people out there trying to do something about water situation. We all have to figure out a way to fix this or our whole state is in a lot of trouble.

  2. David C. Fenton | February 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Reply

    I am appalled at the rapid decline of water levels on Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Michigan.Something must be done immediately to resolve the serious problem to industry, marinas, fish habitat and navigation in these pristine waters.
    As a boater, there are many places that I have been able to go most all of my lifetime, that are no longer available due to low water levels.
    I strongly support the placing of restictive structure in the St. Clair river, or the construction of a dam and a lock to contol the water levels in Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Michigan.
    D. C. Fenton.

    • Stewart Strathearn for Midlandcommunity.ca | February 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply

      As you say, and as pointed out on our site, there are multiple causes for the decline. Climate changes and corresponding changes in weather are substantial factors. Nonetheless the fact remains that the Lake Huron – Michigan basin and Lake Superior are at all time lows. Indeed, the official Canadian Hydrographic website states, “Water levels on Lake St.Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Montreal Harbour are below their all-time average for this time of year and are above the level of Chart Datum. Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are below their all-time average for this time of year and are below the level of Chart Datum.” ( http://www.waterlevels.gc.ca/C&A/bulletin.pdf ). The US Army Corps of Engineers, the group who is responsible for the dredging, admits that their dredging has adversely affected upstream water levels. They also agree that the sills will improve water levels upstream. They do not say it will reverse or counteract effects arising from long-term cycles or climate change.

  3. The problem is I know precisely what they are talking about, thank you University degree and Professor Andre Robert Introduction to Geomorphology. The sills in question are the things that the dredgers already removed, basically shallow features that occur naturally in river beds. Saying that they will not affect shipping in the river would be saying that the dredgers dredged the river when it did not need being dredged. They are suggesting undredging the river, you just know that after they finish the job the dredgers will be back the year after. Saying that the sills will not effect natural fish hatching grounds, is true, these were already destroyed by the dredgers. putting river structures back in place after they were removed is a difficult process at best. what is more likely to happen is that they will put something in place a) sand which will wash away to where a more natural location is or b) something more permanent like rock or concrete which will cause the current to undermine the structure affecting the course further down river. The crux of the mater is that rivers are more like living things, they move and adjust to the factors around them, they are not man made creations that do what they are told and just sit there.

    There is only one solution now that people have altered things to the point that they are broken. Break them more; dredge the river down to an extension of Lake St.Clair and dam up both ends, the Lake Erie and Lake Huron ends and install a lock system at each dam. This will allow the shipping to be maintained and allow the water levels to be adjusted more quickly to the point were they were.


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